Grabados Populares (Popular Prints )

Categories: Writings by Álvaro Barrios

Álvaro Barrios, 1997. From the catalog “Do it, Hágalo usted mismo” (Do it, Do-it-Yourself ). Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango, Bogotá


Primera serie de Grabados populares. Publicada por Diario del Caribe y El Heraldo, Barranquilla. 1972.

Tres generaciones de buen café (Three Generations of Good Coffee). 1972. First series
    of Popular Prints (a/p intervened with watercolor) and published by Diario del Caribe        and El Heraldo, Barranquilla


In 1972, a publicity agency in Barranquilla commissioned me to make three advertisements for three newspapers in the city promoting Colombian coffee.


I did the pieces in pencil, using the technique I traditionally use for my drawings. When they did the first printing proofs, the result was a disaster because the drawings came out in very weak grays without the contrast necessary for the technique used at that time, when the press did not have offset available, or the current digital system. You had to make clichés of the original drawings. At the newspaper they explained to me that I had to exaggerate the lines in such a way that there would be a sharp contrast between light and shadow. I was very surprised and concerned because the drawings were very different from what I generally do, and I was afraid the final result in the newspaper would also be altered, not giving an accurate idea of the type of drawing I had been doing up to that time. But the ads came out in the paper with the exact tone and translation of what I was doing in my drawings.


I was struck by the technical differences involved in creating some pieces for an advertising campaign, and I began thinking about the similarity that might exist between this experience and the production of traditional prints.  I decided to announce, through a journalist friend, that the three advertisements were three Popular prints and that I would sign any of them that were brought to me, at no charge.” Before baptizing them with the name “Popular Prints,”  I was a bit doubtful about the use of the term print, but I had been reflecting on many terms used in contemporary art that no longer have the strict meaning they originally had, and have been applied by extension to other similar or parallel forms of expression. For example, sculpture is a term that periodically appears to gain and alternatively lose vigor according to the current historical moment, and in the twentieth century art movements, experiences have been very brief if we compare them with those of earlier times. The Renaissance, for example, lasted for some three hundred years. Now a movement that lasts ten years is a long movement. Periodically the end of painting is announced, and it is born again; sculpture ends, it is born, etc. But in many sculpture exhibits there are objects that are not exactly sculptures, and what remains of sculpture is only the original name that was applied to the discipline.


So I decided that the term print could apply, even if not in a strict manner, to the publication of my drawings in newspapers. Before I had the idea of the Popular prints, I had already had discussions with art students and artists about whether, for example, silk screen printing is a print or not. Conventional artists have argued that it is not, that nothing is printed there. But finally, in the biennial exhibits of prints, that are increasingly more numerous, the idea of printing has been expanded to other multiple forms of expression that appear to prove me right.


After those three ads that I signed as Popular prints were printed in a newspaper, I was invited by the Centro de Arte y Comunicación in Buenos Aires to join a group of Latin American artists participating in the Ninth Biennial in Tokyo dedicated to printing.


In 1974, I had the first experience in which the drawings were done specifically to be published in a newspaper as Popular prints. The newspaper announced on the front page, one day earlier, the date, time, and place where the print would be signed, for anyone who wanted to present them to me. To my surprise, a large crowd formed, the majority of the people were students. Through those years of experience with the Popular prints, very few or almost no traditional collector has asked me to sign one of them. They have been recognized, however, by institutions and events dedicated to prints, which to me was a big surprise. Although I took the idea very seriously, I did not think it would resonate with students, intellectuals, and institutions, and that in contrast, it would be practically a failure among the classic art buyers. This latter situation I believe to be a success to a certain degree, because the idea of the Popular prints was to question the presence of traditional printing in contemporary art and the direction that medium was going when, in its beginnings, printing had the mission of making art popular among people who did not have access to a unique piece. But the major artists, especially international ones, end up making prints for very high prices, especially when they know those works are giving shape to a work of great conceptual importance, such as in the case of Yves Klein, who sold what he called “Zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility,” in a memorable exposition called The Void at the Iris Clert Gallery at the beginning of the sixties. He sold those fragments of nothing in exchange for pure gold; they could not be bought with checks, credit cards, or cash.  Klein would receive only pure gold. When asked about this curious requirement, he answered that the highest representation of what is spiritual (nothingness) should be paid for with the highest representation of what is material (gold). There were collectors who bought fragments of nothing with gold. One of them, when he was approached by journalists, stated in a historic gesture that he was paying for an idea, which should have been supported, as is done by institutions today. This good example has not been followed by the majority of collectors who, amongst their purposes, amass objects of art. It was precisely the high cost of pop art pieces that produced their decline and the emergence of conceptualism. In my experience with the Popular prints, I came to the conclusion that they parallel but are completely unlike the values of traditional printing; in traditional printing the artist’s signature is of capital importance, conferring economic value.  With Popular prints, the signature is free, thus confirming the artist’s scornful attitude for this aspect of the work. In traditional printing, the pencil signature is indispensable; in a Popular print, the signature is sometimes even printed, and the artist will write a text over the page of the newspaper.


I speak of the artist as if I were referring to another person, as if Popular print were already a genre. Only in 1979 did I learn that, according to the jury at the First Triennial of Buenos Aires, I had invented this type of Popular print.  Nevertheless, neither then, nor now, do I consider this to be of special merit. Art is something more than invention; this was simply an investigation that had to lead to something, and over time it produced positive results.


There are no particular rules; with these Popular prints the rules are being created through experience. Thus, for example, sometimes the engravings were printed in newspapers in cities other than Barranquilla. They were published in Buenos Aires, Mexico, Caracas, and in almost every city in Colombia. Many people sent in the Popular prints by mail, including a stamp so they could be returned. This caused their inclusion within the genre that some have called “mail art.” A certain person sent popular photocopies to be signed of a popular print, since he only had one page from the newspaper. That person contributed a new idea to the already existing one. In a popular neighborhood in Barranquilla, another popular artist enlarged a Popular print on the front of his house, turning it into a popular mural. Thus, the experience was increasingly enriched through participation by the public.


In 1978, when I began the investigation into Marcel Duchamp, an exhibition was held in Barranquilla in his honor, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his death. I had a Popular print published that consisted of a photograph of Duchamp accompanied by some horizontal lines where the public could write in their dreams, either real or imaginary. And so began the series Sueños con Marcel Duchamp (Dreams about Marcel Duchamp). In this print, the signature was printed and the public finished the work. A series of sixty of those prints in which the public participated was exhibited in the Museo La Tertulia in Cali.


Continuing with the parallels between the two types of prints, in traditional printing the inks and paper are of high quality; in Popular prints the newspaper has a limited duration-it turns yellow, becomes brittle, etc. The work, as Duchamp requested in the beginning, ends up being a mirage and what remains of it is its beauty. With traditional prints, a piece is required to stay as true as possible to how it was in the beginning.  An edition is limited and the largest editions I have heard of are some 300 copies. With Popular prints, the number of copies is the same as the number of newspapers printed. I have had editions ranging from 5,000 to 240,000 copies. Certain magazines, such as that of the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico, were distributed with the signature that I sent on self-adhesive labels by mail. That Museum, when it issued the magazine, affixed the signature to each copy, so that the public could receive it, by mail for those who had subscriptions, or buy it at the corner from the magazine stand with the signature included. Traditional printing moves in a closed circuit of galleries, museums, and institutions, usually commercial, but the Popular print has an open circuit: the press, periodicals, and multiple publications.  They can be found on a corner or received under the door.  I have seen them as flyers, and I have seen people with a package wrapped in a Popular print. I was very interested in playing with the idea of inventing some intellectual games that would follow the parallel with traditional prints. Thus, for example, in the editions in the newspapers, occasionally a copy will get damaged – it gets stained, blurred, or, if there is not enough ink, the pages look very light in color, etc.–all of these pieces are very interesting to me as “artist’s proofs.”


Normally, art students appreciate this experience from the beginning.  I, for my part, announce that the signature of the prints is free only until the last day of the year in which they were issued.  So the Popular prints that are done this year, in the press or any other mass media, will have the same price as that of a conventional print as of the first of January the following year.